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Question: What Are the Differences Between an MSW and an MFT Degree Program?

Answer: MSW is the designation for a Master of Social Work degree program, and MFT is short for marriage and family therapy, an area of specialization within counseling. While there is some overlap between social work and counseling, training and in these two fields is quite different. Many social workers, particularly clinical social workers, learn to provide counseling services to families as part of their training in MSW degree programs. However, family counseling is just one of many different types of services social workers are trained to provide. Marriage and family therapists, or MFTs, also receive their professional training in master’s degree programs. However, master’s in MFT degree programs are more narrowly and deeply focused on preparing students to use the tools of psychotherapy to help couples and family members overcome emotional, behavioral, and psychological issues related to marriage, parenting, and other familial relationships.

Clinical Social Workers and Professional Counselors

Social work and counseling are related yet distinct professions within the larger field of health and human services. Like clinical counselors, social workers may be trained to administer psychotherapeutic counseling services to individuals, families, and other social groups. However, counseling is just one of many tools used by social workers to help people in need cope with a range of issues that may include emotional and behavioral problems; poverty, homelessness, joblessness, substance abuse, discrimination, and/or social stigmatization; and physical illness and the lack of proper nutrition and healthcare. In addition to offering counseling services, social workers typically seek to connect clients with public and private assistance programs that provide housing, poverty relief, addiction treatment, vocational training, nutritional assistance, medical and counseling services, and other types of aid.

It is also important to note that there are different types of MSW programs and that not all MSW programs provide extensive training in clinical counseling. MSW programs with macro or community practice specialization focus on the administrative and organizational aspects of social service programs rather than on individual and group counseling. Advanced generalist MSW programs provide a mix of clinical and community practice training. And there are other MSW program specializations, including school social work, military social work, and mental health social work, that focus on discrete areas of clinical and macro practice.

Professional counselors work with individuals, families, and groups of people who may require social services in addition to therapy to resolve emotional and behavioral problems. However, the counseling profession is more narrowly focused on the application of psychotherapy to address mental health issues, rather than on the provision of outside social assistance. This is true for MFTs, who represent a subset of clinical counselors, and who are trained specifically to use the tools of psychotherapy to address familiar problems and resolve conflict and dysfunction among couples and within the family unit. Thus, while there may be overlap in the master’s-level curriculum for social workers and MFTs, MSW and MFT programs have different purposes and are designed to lead to different professional careers.

Training for Clinical Social Workers and MFTs

Clinical social workers and MFTs receive their professional training at the master’s degree level in specialized programs designed to equip them with the knowledge and skills to effectively provide specific types of services to particular populations. The core MSW curriculum covers topics in social theory, social science research methodologies, and the design and administration of social welfare programs. Students in an MSW program with a clinical specialization may then learn to identify various types of mental illnesses, recognize the symptoms of abuse and trauma, and provide counseling services to a broad range of clients in need. As part of MSW training, students practice applying what they have learned in the program through field education, which for clinical social workers takes place in agencies that provide clients with counseling services. A typical MSW in clinical social work program, which should include at least 900 hours of field education, can be completed in roughly two years by students who are enrolled full-time.

Master’s in MFT programs are also designed to be completed in roughly two years of full-time enrollment, which generally includes 500 to 700 hours or more of supervised clinical counseling practice with individuals, couples, and/or families. Students in these programs learn foundational theories of human psychological development and clinical counseling and study family dynamics, the effects of psychopathology within the family system, human sexuality, and other topics that are relevant to counseling couples, parents, children, and other family members. They may also learn about domestic violence, abuse, addiction, and other behavioral problems within the family system. Finally, students in an MFT program apply what they have learned in the program through supervised clinical work. So, while there are some areas of overlap between an MSW program and an MFT program, the training regimens are quite different in their focus.

The table below contrasts coursework and other curricular aspects of a clinical social work MSW program with coursework and other curricular aspects of a master’s in MFT program.

Curriculum ComponentMSW in Clinical Social WorkMaster’s in MFT
Core CourseHuman Behavior in the Social EnvironmentPsychopathology & Diagnosis
Core CourseSocial Work ResearchEthics of Professional Counseling
Specialization CourseSocial Work Practice with Individuals, Families, & GroupsTheories of Family Therapy
Specialization CourseTrauma & Abuse in AdulthoodHuman Sexuality & Couples Therapy
Clinical Training900 hours of field education500 to 700 hours or more of clinical counseling internships

Accreditation for MSW and Master’s in MFT Programs

MSW and MFT programs are subject to distinct accreditation standards administered by different organizations. The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) is the sole accrediting body for bachelor’s and master’s in social work degree programs. In addition to requiring accredited programs to provide at least 900 hours of field education, the CSWE periodically reviews MSW programs and maintains curricular guidelines detailed in the CSWE’s Educational Policy and Accreditation Standards for Baccalaureate and Master’s Social Work Programs. These standards include nine general competencies:

  • Demonstrate ethical and professional behavior
  • Engage diversity and difference in practice
  • Advance human rights and social, economic, and environmental justice
  • Engage in practice-informed research and research-informed practice
  • Engage in policy practice
  • Engage with individuals, families, groups, organizations, and communities
  • Assess individuals, families, groups, organizations, and communities
  • Intervene with individuals, families, groups, organizations, and communities
  • Evaluate practice with individuals, families, groups, organizations, and communities

There are two organizations that may provide accreditation to master’s in MFT programs: the Council for Accreditation of Counseling & Related Educational Programs (CACREP); and the Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education (COAMFTE). CACREP and COAMFTE operate independent of one another, and their curricular guidelines and accreditation standards for master’s in MFT programs are different. For example, CACREP requires minimum of 700 hour of supervised experiences (100 hours of practicum and 600 hours of internship), while COAMFTE has a slightly lower requirement of 500 supervised clinical hours.

The CACREP Standards for Marriage, Couple, and Family Counseling state: “Students who are preparing to specialize as marriage, couple, and family counselors are expected to possess the knowledge and skills necessary to address a wide variety of issues in the context of relationships and families.” This includes learning about:

  • The history and development of marriage, couple, and family counseling
  • Theories and models of family systems and dynamics
  • Theories and models of marriage, couple, and family counseling
  • Sociology of the family, family phenomenology, and family of origin theories
  • Principles and models of assessment and case conceptualization from a systems perspective
  • Assessments relevant to marriage, couple, and family counseling

COAMFTE’s Accreditation Standards: Graduate & Post-Graduate Marriage and Family Therapy Training Programs stresses the organization’s commitment to the systems and relational theories of psychotherapy, which accredited programs must incorporate into their training. The COAMFTE guidelines for a master’s curriculum in MFT includes coursework in the following areas:

  • Foundations of Relational/Systemic Practice, Theories & Models
  • Clinical Treatment with Individuals, Couples, and Families
  • Diverse, Multicultural, and/or Underserved Communities
  • Research & Evaluation
  • Professional Identity, Law, Ethics, & Social Responsibility
  • Biopsychosocial Health & Development Across the Lifespan
  • Systemic/Relational Assessment & Mental Health Diagnosis and Treatment

Licensure for MFTs and Clinical Social Workers

Another key difference between MSW programs and master’s in MFT programs concerns licensure, which is administered at the state level. While licensure requirements vary by state, all fifty states require applicants for licensure as a clinical social worker (LCSW) to hold an MSW degree from a CSWE-accredited program. However, LCSW licensure is typically only required for clinical social workers who intend to establish their own private practice (although some positions may prefer to hire LCSWs). In contrast, clinical counselors, including MFTs, must be licensed to practice by the state in which they intend to practice. While specific licensure criteria vary by state, all fifty states require MFTs to hold a master’s degree in counseling/MFT. Potential applicants to MSW programs and to master’s in MFT programs should examine the requirements for licensure in their state to determine whether particular programs meets the requirements.

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